By Christopher Dekki
It is important to think locally when implementing the SDGs, argues Christopher Dekki. Countries in Asia-Pacific, such as Laos and Sri Lanka, are examples of this successful approach.
Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, there has been consistent discussion on localisation: of taking the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the level of communities and of the people meant to benefit from these policies. Efforts around localisation have included basing local policies on global sustainable development agreements, as well as passing subnational laws that reflect wider, national sustainability priorities. Work on this topic is not new. It did not begin in 2015, nor was it born out of the formulation process of the SDGs. Conversations around localising sustainable development policy were already taking place in the 1990s. These efforts were visible in the 1992 Agenda 21: The outcome document of the Earth Summit was seen as a useful tool not only by national governments, but by subnational authorities as well. Local governments were quickly becoming key players in global sustainability efforts and would soon help frame the localisation narrative.
A Holistic Approach
Much has been done to bring different levels of government together in support of sustainable development. But a truly holistic approach to localisation requires going beyond the realm of government. To realise its goals, the international system needs to work together with non-state actors: from acknowledging the critical importance of stakeholders (key social groups ranging from women and youth to indigenous peoples and business entities), to recognising the central role society as a whole must play in reviewing any progress achieved. True implementation of the SDGs and other global agreements in the cities, towns, and villages of all United Nations Member States requires meaningful stakeholder engagement. As a result, partnerships with communities, with stakeholders beyond government and political actors, are essential in ensuring the full implementation of the SDGs by 2030.
The Asia-Pacific region is making great strides towards implementing the 2030 Agenda. Governments there understand that localisation means empowering cities and subnational authorities, while also recognising the efforts civil society and other stakeholders are making in realising the SDGs. As a result, thanks to the enabling environment for partnerships brought about by the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, an agenda that clearly explains in multiple sections that partnerships and sustainable development go hand in hand, governments are making sustained efforts to create and maintain strong relationships with diverse social actors.
Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region work hard to achieve true localisation by engaging a wide range of national stakeholders. In doing so, these countries also improve their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), the global review process that takes place at the High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development (HLPF). The VNRs are aimed at the sharing of experiences, with the goal of accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
In Laos, the government is sensitising both subnational authorities and Lao stakeholders around the overall 2030 Agenda, the Laos national implementation plans, and the wider follow-up and review process. Working with the UN system, the Laos government organised capacity building workshops for local government officials and stakeholder groups meant to jumpstart local efforts around implementation and to bolster the Laos VNR. In the course of these workshops, participants analysed Laos’s specific conditions for implementing the SDGs.
For example, it was emphasised that due to its low rate of energy consumption and low population density, the country is in a great position to implement SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy). Furthermore, the participants formulated an additional, localised SDG 18: “Lives safe from unexploded ordnances (UXOs)”. This example from Laos illustrates how the SDGs are not meant to be an unchangeable, abstract entity, but something that has to be adapted to the specifics of a country in order to become truly effective. Finally, thanks to mapping out the many stakeholder groups it seeks to mobilise, Laos has been able to put into motion an inclusive national consultation process aimed at improving the actualisation of the 2030 Agenda in the country as well as the preparation of its report for the VNR at the HLPF, where Laos is looking at graduating from its Least-Developed Country (LDC) status.
Similar efforts are being carried out in Sri Lanka, where subnational authorities and other stakeholders have been mobilised to participate in the implementation the 2030 Agenda, and a multi-stakeholder advisory body has been established. Despite a decades-long conflict in the country, key stakeholder groups are working together, ensuring that all stakeholders’ voices are included in the VNR report. Efforts are now being made by the Sri Lankan government to create online mechanisms for engagement aimed at reaching down into communities throughout the country and further mobilise them towards the implementation, follow-up, and review of the 2030 Agenda – thus moving realisation of the SDGs from the more abstract level of national government to the actual level of implementation which is local and municipal governments.
In addition to activities in specific countries, a general process of regionalisation is taking place. The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) – an organisation that supports participatory governance and citizen engagement – works together with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) to provide technical support around stakeholder engagement in the context of the 2030 Agenda. IAP2 has a great deal of experience working with governments, especially local authorities, on outreach and engagement in decision-making and participatory mechanisms. The UNESCAP-IAP2 partnership serves to bolster the progress being made toward localisation in the region. It also helps to ensure greater local outreach, thus enhancing the VNR reports of countries up for review at the HLPF and showcasing as meaningfully as possible and with as many stakeholder voices included as possible, the extent of national progress being made to achieve the 2030 Agenda.
The success of the 2030 Agenda hinges on the full engagement of actors beyond national governments. Localisation of the SDGs means ensuring the participation of all stakeholders, including local communities and subnational authorities. Of course, this is easier said than done, and achieving a paradigm shift around governance and public participation that matches the transformative nature of the 2030 Agenda is certainly no easy task. Nevertheless, many countries are taking the initiative and are moving forward with the commitments they made and are including their people in implementation, follow-up, and review processes. In Asia-Pacific, new mechanisms for engagement are established that help to accomplish localisation, while at the same time bridging gaps between local communities and the state as well as between subnational authorities and national governments.